Love is in the air...if love is anhydrous ammonia
Yes folks, its that time of the year when you start seeing big white tubes being pulled around in fields. Anhydrous ammonia, or NH3 if you are chemically inclined, is what's in those tanks. It is injected into the soil to provide nitrogen for next year's corn crop.
One tank can hold around 2 tons of NH3, and a ton is selling for about $415. A tank's worth of NH3 can be applied to between 20 and 27 acres, depending on the desired rate. Safety goggles and rubber gloves are a must when handling this stuff - when connecting or disconnecting the hoses there might be a little NH3 left, which will fall out as a liquid and start to boil immediately. However, it is very cold, and you oftentimes can feel it through the rubber gloves.
I was hauling corn to the elevator in town today. It just so happens that the pit where I dump was down wind from the NH3 filing platform. On the tanks being filled a vapor valve is cracked open to show when the tank is full. Of course, ammonia vapor gets released, and every so often you'd get a nice sinus cleaning whiff. Think of your household ammonia products and multiply it by 10, and you get the idea.
So, why do farmers use this dangerous stuff? It's lower cost than most nitrogen alternatives, and it is a concentrated form of nitrogen, meaning less needs to be hauled to the field for the same rate per acre. Why are they putting it on about 7 months before the crop will need it? The NH3 will immobilize in the cold soil over the winter and will (mostly) be there in the spring and summer.
A friend of mine was lucky the other day - he was going from one field to another with his NH3 applicator and a tank of NH3 behind. All of a sudden, the NH3 valve opened and ammonia came shooting out the knives, causing a cloud of ammonia. He found that his rate controller, turned on, had a pinched wire that caused the valve to open. From then on he made sure he turned off the controller and closed the tank valve when transporting. Luckily no one was hurt.
I use NH3, and will have some custom applied this fall. I plan on putting more this next spring, as I feel more of it will be available to the corn plant than later. However, a lot of my acres (especially no-till acres) will receive a liquid by-product from the Anjimoto Heartland lysine plant in Eddyville, IA. A custom applicator puts on 200 gallons/acre of this stuff, which looks like hot chocolate cake batter. I've had good success with it in the past, and is cost effective with NH3.